Read the dead uncharitably

I have mixed feelings about the so-called “principle of charity,” which Russell Blackford once stated as, “read others on the basis that they are probably saying something that’s not absurd.” On the one hand, people say absurd things often enough that this may not be such a great assumption when it comes to figuring out what’s actually be true, people’s feelings be damned. On the other hand:

  • Charity helps avoid flame wars
  • It’s good to be careful not to unjustifiably damage someone’s reputation
  • From a Machiavellian point of view, it’s nice to close off responses of the form, “what I meant was…”

I note is that none of these three reasons apply to dead people. I’m at no risk of getting into a flame war with Kant, Kant can’t care about his reputation, and when you criticize Kant there’s no risk that he’ll write any kind of rebuttal to you. (Question: can you think of any pragmatic reasons of the sort listed above that do apply to dead people?)

With famous dead people like Kant, a lot of people are going to say that the empirical arguments swing over to charity, since you don’t get to be a famous philosopher by saying absurd things. That seems to me empirically false, however.